I’m here for you, says the public editor
Thabo Leshilo wants to promote greater understanding between journalists and their public
When Mike Robertson, the MD of Avusa Media, asked if I would like to “take on a new challenge” as group public editor, I accepted without hesitation. That is not to say I was not apprehensive.
Let us face it: this is unchartered waters for both the company and me.
The beauty, though, is that we are all on a learning curve. For me, the new responsibility represents yet another step in my lifelong apprenticeship in this noble craft called journalism.
I also accepted because the idea of having a public editor showed Avusa’s commitment to quality journalism and giving a voice to readers, which resonates with my desire to promote greater understanding between journalists and the public they serve.
This conviction is born of a fear on my part that the public does not fully appreciate what we do, hence its unwillingness to support us in our hour of need. We have, in my view, failed dismally in getting the public on our side, getting it to understand why it is important for us to be free to report for the public good.
My role is that of an independent representative of readers of Avusa Media’s publications. This means I am your advocate, batting for you full time. It is my job to ensure your opinions count.
My success will be measured by whether your comments, concerns and complaints receive timely and adequate attention and response from the company’s publications — the Sunday Times, The Times, Sowetan, Sunday World, The Herald, Weekend Post, Daily Dispatch and Saturday Dispatch.
It is informed by the belief that such responsiveness to, and greater respect for, readers’ concerns provides an added impetus for journalists to adhere to the highest standards of accuracy, ethics, integrity, fairness and balance in reporting.
I’m also charged with the role of publicly assessing the publications’ adherence to their editorial policies, the laws of the land and that of the South African Press Code, which seeks to ensure that news is “truthful, accurate, fair and balanced”. In cases of infringement, I will determine, in consultation with the editors, when and how prominent apologies and corrections will be published.
Now, it goes without saying that my success will be invariably linked to the level of commitment by all parties concerned – title editors and all journalists, including section heads and reporters.
I expect to have similar co-operation from the commercial side of the newspapers in so far as they become the subject of complaints by readers. Above all, the onus will lie squarely on you, the reader, to determine whether your public editor bites or not. In other words, whether I become the bulldog I intend to be, or get reduced to a sausage dog, will depend on the level of your engagement .
The editors are expected to set aside regular, sufficient space for a column that addresses readers’ concerns, complaints and industry issues. The column will appear weekly, alternating between dailies and weekend publications.
Most importantly, the column will be an independent platform and not be subject to the approval of an editor. The Avusa Media newspapers and their websites shall advertise prominently the existence of the office of the public editor and how to contact it.
I have no illusions that my job is going to be a walk in the park. Far from it. I expect many of my colleagues would be annoyed by the prospect of being “second-guessed” after publication. Inevitably, I will step on some sensitive toes and rub some people the wrong way. That comes with the territory, as do large egos.
That is understandable. Good journalists — including editors — take their jobs seriously and go the extra mile to make sure that their work is never found wanting. Thus they are reluctant to admit mistakes. I also expect apprehension that my views could provide added ammunition to detractors and enemies of press freedom.
I understand these concerns, but I believe we all have to learn to live with them. Given the enormous power we journalists wield, it is about time we demonstrated a greater willingness to be more transparent and accountable in our dealings with the public. That, in my view, can only endear us to the people we serve, and I cannot think of a better way to safeguard press freedom.
The public editor is open for business: please e-mail your concerns, comments and complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org. The postal address is Public editor, 4 Biermann Avenue, Rosebank 2196, and the fax number is 011-328-2587.
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